A searing portrait of depravity in the darkest of times, this debut feature for Hungarian director and co-writer László Nemes is a remarkable and evocative film. Son of Saul focuses upon a Jewish man, Saul Ausländer, a role filled by Géza Röhrig (a 48-year-old writer and poet), who is forced to aid the disposal of gas chamber victims during the Holocaust.
He is one of what were known as the Sonderkommandos working at Auschwitz-Berkenau in 1944. The term itself in German means “special unit” and was part of the vague and euphemistic language the Nazis used to refer to aspects of the Final Solution during the Second World War. The Sonderkommandos had to oversee the extermination of those that were transported to concentration camps. When trains arrived carrying their cargo of men, women and children these people were offloaded, marched into the camps, stripped on the promise of hot showers and walked naked to their death.
Then it was the Sonderkommandos’ job to dispose of the bodies and scrub the walls and floors, ready for the next batch and then the next and the one thereafter. Although the gas canisters were supposed to be lethal, on one occasion Röhrig (as Saul) discovers a young boy still gasping for air once the “cleansing” is supposedly complete. The lad is summarily suffocated, but Saul has it in his mind that his beautiful thin body is that of his son.
A Jewish doctor, again under the jackboot of the Nazis, is instructed to perform an autopsy, but Saul implores him not to do so and spends the rest of the film determined to find a rabbi to perform a proper burial. Of course, Saul is risking not only his life, but the lives of all the other Sonderkommandos for disobeying any order. More than that, Saul’s personal mission puts in jeopardy a planned uprising, as word is that the Sonderkommandos are about to be put to death en masse at any moment. These workers are hardly empathetic or friendly. Rather, they are desperate to save their own skins and their treatment of one another is frequently brutal.
Although it takes some time to get your head around just what is happening and it is mighty difficult to watch, Son of Saul burns into your brain such that it is impossible to shake. Almost entirely shot in close up and specifically in close ups of Saul (because the film focuses upon his perspective over two days), it is his impenetrable glare that is so skillfully captured by cinematographer Mátyás Erdély.
In the deliberately blurred background of the images we witness the day-to-day running of the camp, most shockingly the naked corpses of those primarily gassed but otherwise shot, sometimes piled high. There’s a real sense of desperation in every frame captured. It is a simple but oh-so exacting story of one man caught in a dreadful situation in a limited framework of space and time.
So it is that László Nemes set out to show only show what Saul sees, what he pays attention to. Nemes says Saul has been working in the crematorium for four months. “As a protective reflex, he no longer notices the horror and so I relegated the horror to the background, blurred or off screen.” It is a brilliant effective device.
Words, spoken in German, Yiddish, Hungarian and Polish, are used sparingly and are often not necessary because of the incessant true-to-life sounds of the camp in motion. The music is from László Melis, a Hungarian composer and violinist noted for his minimalist style.
Several Holocaust films, such Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful, The Pianist and The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, are some of the finest works ever produced. Now it is time to add another. Decidedly art-house rather than mainstream, Nemes’ work is astonishing and visionary as he captures the essence of man’s inhumanity to man. Somehow among all this wanton brutality, Saul cannot be at peace until his so-called son is laid to rest. Rated M, Son of Saul scores a 9 to 9½ out of 10.
Director: László Nemes
Cast: Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn
Release Date: 25 February, 2016
Rating: M – Holocaust themes and coarse language
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television